Synopsis: Barbarella is marked by the same audacity and originality, fantasy, humor, beauty and horror, cruelly and eroticism that make comic books such a favorite. The Setting is the planet Lythion in the year 40,000, when Barbarella makes a forced landing while traveling through space. She acts like a female James Bond, vanquishing evil in the forms of robots and monsters. She also rewards, in an uninhibited manner, the handsome men who assist her in the adventure. Whether she is wrestling with Black Guards, the evil Queen, or the Angel Pygar, she just can’t seem to avoid losing at least part of her skin-tight space suit!
eyelights: Jane Fonda in sex kitten mode.
eyesores: the incoherent script.
“Your mission, Barbarella: Find Durand-Durand.”
For good or bad, I have never read the original French comic strip that ‘Barbarella’ is based on. In fact, before seeing the picture for the first time, a few years ago, my only exposure was via Duran Duran (who are named after a key character of the piece) and their track “Electric Barbarella”. It was almost two decades later that I discovered the connection between the band and the film.
‘Barbarella’, for all intents and purposes, is basically a sci-fi adventure crossed with a ’60s sex comedy: Barbarella is sent on a mission by the President of Earth to find the inventor of a new weapon before his creation falls into the wrong hands. Along the way, though, she ends up getting side-tracked numerous times and has to ravish and be ravished by hunky men in order to reach her goal.
‘Barbarella’ is such a peculiar film. Released in 1968, it could only have existed in that era: the sets are ginormous, but none of them look real; every costume, prop and vehicle has a strange, mod look to them; it has a kooky vibe that was intended to be fun, hip; women are treated as sex objects; men can convert a woman with their lovemaking; the script appears to have been written on acid.
A part of me enjoys the surreal, nonsensical side of it. But another part of me wishes that it were a more satisfying picture: the whole way through, one gets this empty feeling, as though ‘Barbarella’ makes no emotional connection whatsoever with the viewer. This is compounded by the fact that nothing is relatable, being in some distant future where everything is foreign, alien to us – at times futuristic, sometimes fantastical, at others just plain odd.
For instance, there’s the notion that Earth has become so peaceful that they don’t have armies, police or any other forms of enforcement – which is why our clueless heroine is sent out on this quest. In this future, even lovemaking has changed from a primal, pleasure-filled connection with another human being to a more intellectual one, via pills and palm-only contact. And that’s just on Earth: on other planets, people relate in completely unconventional ways, ways that usually remain unexplained to the audience.
Seriously, I had completely forgotten just how much sex plays a role in ‘Barbarella’. I obviously remembered the delicious opening credits sequence, featuring a slow, zero-gravity striptease by a youthful Jane Fonda, but I had completely forgotten that a lot of the picture also hinges on sex. It’s not to say that there are any on-screen sex acts or loads of nudity (although it does have a fair bit of skin casually inserted in various scenes), it’s just that sex is a pretty regular theme.
It’s slightly surprising coming from Fonda, who would later become a political activist and feminist, because this role effectively turns her into a mindless sex kitten. It’s not as though Barbarella has any other redeeming qualities: she’s pretty much a vacuous, slightly clueless, young woman who is carried about to her various destinations by the tides – at no point does she display any initiative or confidence. She just stares dumbfoundedly as things happen around her and to her.
In a way, I can see how ‘Barbarella’ could have become a cult classic of sorts: it’s wildly kitschy and mildly sexy. However, I don’t understand how this film could ever be taken seriously: its screenplay is a frank mess, with only loose threads keeping its various elements together, ridiculous dialogue that sometimes seems geared at pre-teens, and a plot that defies all logic from start to finish – it’s pretty much an exercise in fluff, an excuse to bare Jane Fonda.
are talking about Jane Fonda, after all. It’s just that it’s not enough to sustain a full hour and a half of this Dino De Laurentis production – and it hardly justifies investing money into a project that would be universally lambasted.
Now, some 40 years later, I’d say that ‘Barbarella’ is probably best served as a late-night popcorn movie only worth watching with a few wise-cracking friends. With the right company, ‘Barbarella’ has the potential of being as funny and fun as it was likely intended to be. Beyond that, it’s merely eye candy and the perfect vehicle for switching one’s brain off.
Post scriptum: I’ll give the movie credit for one thing, though – it makes me want to seek out and read some of those original comics. Not only am I curious to compare the two, but I wonder what it was that inspired these filmmakers to go ahead and make a live action version of it. We will see. I don’t know how easy it will be to find them, but we will most definitely see.
Professor Ping: “Genius is mysterious.”
Date of viewing: November 29, 2013